Tennessee Basketball: Ranking the 10 Most Influential Figures in Vols' History
Tennessee is far from being a basketball juggernaut. There are no NCAA title banners, or Final Four banners, or really any banners at all. The program has been largely overshadowed by the school’s success in football and the overwhelming accomplishments of Pat Summitt. So it seems like a top ten list like this for Duke or UCLA would be much more interesting an include a lot more names you might know.
However, the Vols have a rich basketball history that deserves more attention than its given. So for that, here’s an arbitrary yet hopefully fun look at the individuals who’ve shaped Tennessee basketball. We’ll begin with the Honorable Mentions:
Dale Ellis, C.J.Watson, Dane Bradshaw, Steve Hamer, and Zora Clevenger (who coached the only undefeated team in program history in 1916).
10. Chris Lofton
If you’re not a college basketball junkie, this name may mean very little to you. But for four years, it meant everything to Tennessee.
Recruited by Buzz Peterson after being ignored by the basketball powers in his home state, the former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky finished his career in Knoxville as a three-time All-American, a conference player of the year and the most prolific three-point shooter in SEC history with 431. He’s currently fourth all time behind J.J. Redick (Duke), David Holston (Chicago State), and Keydren Clark (Saint Peter’s).
Lofton was also the cornerstone for Bruce Pearl’s resurgence after nearly two decades of irrelevance and led the team to its first 31 win season and a No. 1 ranking.
He also beat cancer...during his senior year...and was still a third-team All-American.
9. Doug Dickey
Doug Dickey was a polarizing a figure in Knoxville during his 17 years as athletic director. Men’s basketball, in particular, went through its worst years with Dickey hiring and firing four different coaches from 1985-2002.
However, Dickey was instrumental in building the basketball program by spearheading the construction of Thompson-Boling Arena. At the time of its completion in 1987, it was the largest facility in the country designed specifically for basketball and held the largest crowd ever for an SEC game (25,610 in 1989).
While he was still entrenched with the success of the football program, Dickey should be credited for Tennessee being continually among the schools with the highest annual attendance.
8. Bruce Pearl
Bruce Pearl's brief time at Tennessee is legendary. Along with taking the program to the highest it's ever been, he made basketball the hottest ticket in a football-obsessed town.
By entrenching himself with the Tennessee culture, Pearl used his boisterous, outgoing personality to win over fans and build unprecedented support for the program. He also pissed off John Calipari, which made fans love him even more.
Even in his disgraceful departure, Pearl is still a beloved figure in Knoxville.
7. Ron Widby
Ron Widby is the last four-sport letterman at Tennessee.
(I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in...)
Before becoming an NFL punter with the Cowboys and Packers, Widby captained the Vols to their first NCAA tournament berth by winning the conference title in 1967. In the title-clinching game at Mississippi State, Widby scored 35 points to secure the conference scoring title.
He would later be named SEC Player of the Year and All-American (in both football and basketball).
6. Don DeVoe
Replacing an icon is always difficult. When Don DeVoe accepted the job at Tennessee, it was at the close of the Ray Mears era, and the team was sinking to the bottom of the SEC. DeVoe, however, immediately changed the course of the program.
In just his second season, Tennessee won three times over Kentucky, took home the SEC tournament title and won its first NCAA tournament game in program history. The following year, DeVoe signed and recruited Dale Ellis.
5. Allan Houston
Mired in the years of mediocrity as a team, Allan Houston stands alone as the only player of major significance between the Don DeVoe and Bruce Pearl eras.
Houston gave the struggling Tennessee program national credibility in the early '90s by becoming the school's all-time leading scorer and three-point shooter (he's now second behind Lofton), which led to him becoming a first-round draft pick and a gold medal winner in the 2000 Olympics.
Without Houston, an entire generation of Tennessee basketball is lost to irrelevance.
4. Ernie Grunfeld
Along with Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld became a superstar at Tennessee.
"The Ernie and Bernie Show" drew national attention (including this stellar Sports Illustrated article) and solidified both players as the first hardwood celebrities to come from UT. Even more significant to the history of Tennessee is Grunfeld's continued career in the NBA as a player and an executive.
3. Ray Mears
There was no Tennessee basketball before Ray Mears.
At least not in the way we understand the game today. Along with incredible success (278-122 record in 15 years), Mears was innovative in building the Tennessee program.
Perhaps more than any of other person, Ray Mears made it comfortable for everyone to be a Tennessee fan by marketing ideas. that made UT athletics inclusive rather than exclusive. Anyone could be a citizen of Big Orange Country. Ray Mears' ideas made sidewalk alumni feel at home just as much as a graduate with four degrees.
2. Bernard King
Bernard King is easily to best player to ever come out of Tennessee at the pro or college level. It's really not all that close.
King was a three-time conference player of the year and a two-time All-American with the Vols, but it's his pro career that makes him truly significant for the Tennessee program. Between 1977 and '93, King earned an MVP trophy, a scoring title and four trips to the all-star game. Grunfeld and Houston had their moments, but King is the only true NBA star to come from Tennessee.
1. Pat Summitt
Yes, I know this list is about the men’s program, but hear me out.
Pat Summitt’s significance goes well beyond her dominance on the court. In building the Tennessee program from the ground up, Summitt became a seminal figure in the Title Nine movement and the ongoing movement for women’s rights across the country. There’s simply no way to overstate her role in the entire Tennessee athletic department and her impact on the Tennessee brand.
Simply, when recruits for the men's team want to meet the coach of the women's team, it's clear who carries the most influence.